Detroit Tigers improve from 30th to 28th in 2020. What’s next?

The curtain has quietly come down for the Detroit Tigers without a lot of fanfare and certainly no curtain calls from the audience.

It was a season where the Detroit Tigers did improve in some respects but the overall body of work shows there is still major construction left in the rebuild that started at the 2017 trade deadline.

The Tigers did play well in short spurts in the sprint-like 60-game season (officially now 58). They managed to win just enough early on to get GM Al Avila to proclaim he likes his team at the trade deadline and not launch a full-scale sell-off for whatever they could get. Oh…and the Tigers lost their manager in the season’s waning days as Ron Gardenhire decided it was time to be a Grampa and get ready for hunting season.

Detroit predictably tumbled in the standings over the final weeks to finish 5th once again the AL Central. A possible rule of thumb is to “not pass on any chance to improve your talent depth when you’re in 10th place”.  However in doing so they did slump their way into gaining the 3rd overall pick in the 2021 MLB Draft assuming normal draft order rules get followed. Fans will start getting to know Kumar Rocker, Jud Fabian, Brady House, and Jack Leiter pretty well.

It was a year with no fans in the stands. Eerie quiet in the park and creepy pictures of vast swaths of empty seats though some were filled with cardboard cutouts as lifeless as Christin Stewart’s bat.

Let’s look at a bit of who did what and what comes next….but first, please take a moment of quiet reflection to think of your best memories of the Jordan Zimmermann Era.

Three Trending Up

Jeimer Candelario: After an 0-17 start to his season had many wondering just how bad his season could actually be, Candelario, pulled his act together. An August rush of outstanding batsmanship eventually led to a final slash line of .297/.369/.502…that’ll play. Now he just needs to come close to it for a full campaign.

Willi Castro: Despite some obvious defensive flaws that Castro will need to work furiously to correct in the off-season, 2020 was a complete positive for the 23-year old Castro. A hot streak that never really slowed commenced shortly after his call up and he was Detroit’s most dangerous hitter. A final line of .349/.381/.550 was electric to watch but it has the critics out in force predicting massive regression moving forward. Predicting someone to regress who just about hit .350 isn’t exactly a shaky limb to inhabit (But his BABIP!). Regardless, Castro has earned the first shot at shortstop next season barring a major acquisition.

Spencer Turnbull: Any Tigers starter who could keep an ERA under 4.00 practically qualifies as the next Hal Newhouser in Motown these days. Turnbull came in at 3.97 in his 11 starts. For a second straight season, Turnbull was healthy and took the balk in turn. He showed an ability to keep the ball on the ground and away from flying into the seats with a mere 4.5% HR per flyball rate. Turnbull was also far from perfect. He doesn’t work terribly deep into games and his walk-rate jumped in the wrong direction in ‘20. Beggars can’t be choosers…while Detroit waits on its young core of starters from the minors to settle in more comfortably, Turnbull was the best they had to compete with this season.

Honorable Mention:

Jose Cisnero, Bryan Garcia, Victor Reyes, Jonathan Schoop

Three Trending Down

Matthew Boyd: Who doesn’t cheer for Boyd? Everyone likes Boyd. But his struggles of last year’s second half continued into ‘20 from the jump. While K-rate cratered well below his ‘19 numbers with an increase in walks tossed in just for fun, Boyd managed to actually allow homers at a higher rate than the dinger-fest that killed his season in 2019. He’ll get more chances but Boyd is likely one hoping a new pitching coach can help him out his morass next year.

Christin Stewart: Stewart isn’t alone among the disappointing hitters in Detroit. But he quite simply has no discernible skill right now on offense or defense where you can say “at least he can do that”.  He could be on his final shot as a Tiger in Spring Training.

Joe Jimenez: The man who once was an All-Star representative for The Tigers continued his slide into the abyss. Occasional decent outings were interwoven with nights where Jimenez lived thigh high over the heart of the plate and that’s bad neighborhood to live.

Dishonorable Mention:

Michael Fulmer, Miguel Cabrera, Niko Goodrum, Jake Rogers

 

The Questions Moving Forward

Who will manage this team? The next manager’s identity will likely yield some clues to the Tigers’ overall strategy. If they go low key like retaining Lloyd McClendon or a similar run of the mill retread, expect more rebuilding and bargain shopping for talent.

If a young sought-after candidate can be secured or an experienced guy with a championship pedigree, perhaps that’s a sign owner Chris Ilitch is ready to spend enough to win. There is no sense hiring the top of the market guy unless you go for it.

Also…the next skipper might need to have an uncomfortable conversation with Miguel Cabrera about batting in the 3-hole every day. Enjoy.

Will the highly ranked farm system start yielding more core pieces? 

Tarik Skubal, Casey Mize, and Isaac Paredes arrived at the same time with varying degrees of struggle and modest moments of success. But their presence made the Tigers eminently more watchable. Some of the same can be said for homegrown bullpen pieces, Gregory Soto and Bryan Garcia. Daz Cameron hit town as well.

The focus now shifts to Spencer Torkelson, Matt Manning, and Riley Greene plus a few others. How soon can they arrive and be ready to help? The Tigers can’t build an entire contender from their farm system, but they have the guys to put a good core in place to work with for the next manager.

Is the checkbook open?

The general worry around baseball during the COVID situation is how much money are clubs losing and how much less will they spend? There is speculation abound about payroll plateaus or cuts next year. This is an opportunity to weaponize the Ilitch war chest.

Only Miguel Cabrera’s monster deal is left. Ilitch’s Tigers have money. If other clubs are sitting out the free-agent market due to cash flow issues, Ilitch needs to seize the moment and make the splash. Whether it’s George Springer, Marcel Ozuna, JT Realmuto, or Charlie Morton. Pick any two plus perhaps a second season with Jonathan Schoop. It takes commitment. Does Ilitch have it in him?

Wrap it up

2020 was a rough year for the Olde English D but it wasn’t a lost year. The season shrunk, fans had to stay home, they lost Mr. Kaline and the manager retired. They finished 5th.

Thankfully the kids started to arrive with more likely coming. The draft seemed to yield as much talent in six picks as it could. The big club may have identified a few long-term assets like Candelario, Reyes, Castro and, if you squint, the oft-injured Jacoby Jones. They managed to be competitive for a stretch. The general caliber of baseball appeared better in ‘20 than the woeful ‘19 team could muster.

The next three or four months will tell quite a story for the Tigers. Do they get on the hunt with someone aggressive hires and pricey acquisitions? Or do they continue to wait on the youngsters augmented mostly by the dregs of the leftover scrap heap? Only Chris Ilitch and perhaps Al Avila truly know right now.